COLUMN: Musings of a Simple Country Man

Hobie Morris

Clate Linger ‘s Frozen Ear: Chillin’ Stories From the Past

by Hobie Morris

Life ain’t about how fast you run, or high you can climb, it’s about how well you bounce—Country Wisdom.

The recent historic Arctic cold producing , bone rattling polar conditions arrive like an uninvited guest who stayed too long! Thankfully, at least temporarily, returning to its frigid polar lair… Over the years central New York has endured many such weather extremes. Some are more familiar than others.

In January 1888, for example, a blizzard swept through the Plains states. Folks didn’t have any early warning systems then. It’s been called the “School Childrens’ Blizzard” because it furiously struck when the kids were walking home from school. In some places earlier in the day the temperature was up to 70 degrees. By the end of the day the temperature had dropped more than a hundred degrees. Many students had dressed for mild temperatures. Suddenly the blizzard hit. High wind blew so much snow it was impossible to see. More than 200 died.

In March of that same year, a huge blizzard devastated the East coast. Snowfall averaged 40 to 50 inches and drifts reached 30 to 40 feet—in some places drifting over the tops of three story buildings. Winds of 80 miles an hour were reported and more than 200 ships were grounded or wrecked. More than 400 people died. (In 1888, Brookfield had 50 inches of rain and 182 stormy days.)

Arguably the greatest storm of the 19th century took place in 1889. The Waterville Times described it as “greater in extreme and longer in duration than the famous one in ’88.” One weather historian considers the “great American outbreak of 1899” the worst in American history (the loss of lives, livestock, etc. was enormous.) There was snow in Ft. Meyers, Florida ; Miami had a 29 degree reading; they were giving snow rides in Montgomery, Alabama; it was -12 degrees in northern Georgia , minus 61 degrees in Logan, Montana, minus 15 in Washington, DC and New Orleans had 7 degrees; it was reported that there was ice on the Mississippi at the Gulf of Mexico; a nor’easter on Feb. 22 dumped over three feet of snow from Virginia to New England.

Considered by many the benchmark 20 th century cold spell took place in January, 1904 (my Father was 5 years old, and I wasn’t born yet. Just a joke.) On January 18 and l9 temperatures plummeting in the Brookfield village ranged from -40 to -44 degrees. West Edmeston had -48; Hamilton -52. Syracuse and Watertown showed -40. Even New York City reported -1 degree. It was so cold in Brookfield that supposedly Clate Linger had his ear frozen IN BED! In 1955 a life-long Brookfielder remembered a winter day when the temperature never got “warmer” than -50 degrees—and an unofficial wind chill pushing 100 degrees. The cow heated barn was slightly warmer than his family’s old and cold hilltop farmhouse across the town road.

Chilling weather tales are a part of the local lore. One old-timer tells about a time long ago when it was so cold the candle flames froze. People would break them off and store them in metal boxes to be used later to start fires. Another historic cold spell found the stove smoke frozen in a white rope as it met the Arctic air. To keep the fire burning a person had to get a long ladder and with a sharp ax cut the smoke rope down to the roof level so the inside stove could burn again.

Not so long ago there was a local community ceremony on July 4 when winter was officially declared over. On that day long johns, etc., worn daily over the previous 8 ½ winter months were cut or scraped off the locals and burned in a big, odorous pile in the middle of Main Street. Then those who wished flocked into a local pub to celebrate.

On a blistering hot summer day a local blind horse froze to death. It was so hot that a barn full of last year’s ear corn began popping. The exploding pop corn quickly overflowed the barn , pushing out many boards. The old blind horse was in a fenced in paddock attached to the barn. The poor horse thought it was a late winter snow storm, lay down in it and began to uncontrollably shiver and soon he sadly passed away. Many locals liberally toasted this valiant old horse when they put him to his eternal rest.

Soon they were celebrating this event in a popular local watering hole.

The 20th century saw many memorable winter blizzards in the Brookfield area. In 1908, a huge blizzard blocked roads into Brookfield for several days. Even when opened by hand shoveling and teams of horses the stage driver tipped over 12 times on his seven-mile run to North Brookfield. In March 1914 Brookfield was isolated for days. The first mail was carried in by Charlie Miller, using snowshoes, from Leonardsville to Brookfield and back again. And so it went through many instances in the 20th century and now in the 21 st century. Area residents are winter tough and always ready to help when needs arise. A stranded motorist in these hills will have a traffic jam of helpers around him in the blink of an eye. Their only reward is a handshake and a “thank you.”

In 38 Brookfield winters, my beautiful wife Lois and I have an extensive book of chilling experiences, the latest being the present winter when one evening in our slightly insulated A-Frame home we had combined 24 pieces of clothing on when we went to bed. Our small stove had to be fed wood about every hour or two. When it’s this cold, like Eskimos, we have to put stored foods on the floor into our tiny propane refrigerator to keep from freezing. In 1980 it was -42 on our first Christmas day, after many balmy years in mid-Missouri. With no insulation in our summer house, we had to sleep in our snowmobile suits. We had to walk through three feet of snow several miles cross lots to reach our pickup truck stored in a neighbor’s roadside barn. It was an ice cube. A friend from town chained our truck out of the barn, but it took four miles before our truck reluctantly started. Our winter living was just beginning.

Living as we do, we have the greatest admiration for many generations who somehow endured and survived these horrendously cold years with no insulation, drafty houses, plank wall houses where a light layer of snow was often found on the top of blankets on the bed. In those days preparing firewood was a year round chore and those too lazy to do so could face a life and death challenge.

Maybe better than most, my pioneering wife and this simple country man understand what they went through because, in a small way, we are still living a life now long forgotten.

Hobie Morris is a Brookfield resident and simple country man.

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